Bulbs · Container Gardening

Forcing Bulbs for Winter Blooms

A rainy Sunday meant fall clean-up couldn’t continue outside, but it was the perfect time to plant some bulbs indoors to provide some welcome color later this winter.

I couldn’t make it through winter without the boisterous blooms of amaryllis. Hippeastrum, as they are botanically named, are easy to grow. So easy and determined to grow, in fact, that if a bulb happens to be forgotten in a shopping bag, it may be found a couple months later in full bloom inside the bag. (Not that this has ever happened to me!)

The most difficult part of growing amaryllis bulbs may be choosing which ones to purchase. They are available in both brilliant and soft shades of red, burgundy, pink, rose, orange, salmon and white. They may be solid- or multi-colored, and can have either single or double flowers.

Once you decide on the variety, select the largest bulbs you can find. They cost more but will produce more stems and blooms. Make sure the bulbs are dry, firm and without blemishes. It is not uncommon to see bright green buds or leaves beginning to grow.

Find a pot just slightly larger in diameter than the bulb – an inch wider than the widest part of the bulb is ideal. The container can be made of just about any type of material but make sure it is heavy enough so it won’t tip over from the weight of the large blooms, deep enough to allow for the bulb’s roots to grow unencumbered, and it must have drainage holes.

Plant the bulb in lightweight potting mix, leaving its shoulders exposed above the soil. Firmly press the potting mix around the bulb before watering thoroughly and setting it in a bright, warm spot. Water lightly until a stem begins to grow and then increase watering.

Most varieties of amaryllis will begin blooming six to eight weeks after planting, but some take as long as ten weeks to flower.

Paperwhites are another winter tradition in my home. The fragrance of their small white flowers fills the air with their sweet perfume.

Paperwhites can be planted in potting mix or simply set on a layer of pebbles. What could be easier than that? To grow them without potting mix, put a two- to three-inch layer of pebbles or decorative stones in the bottom of a watertight container.

Next, set the bulbs on top, packing them together tightly.

Add more pebbles or decorative stones to cover bulbs up to their shoulders. Finally, add water until it barely reaches the bottom of the bulbs. Move the container to a cool spot out of direct sunlight. Check daily to see if the bulbs need more water. Since I am growing mine in a glass container, I will be able to see when roots develop. If you can’t see through your container, pull gently on the top of bulbs. When they have roots (two to four weeks after planting) they will resist your tug. At this point, the container should be moved to a sunny window until they flower (usually four to six weeks after planting). The flowers will last longer if they are moved back to a cool location out of direct sunlight.

I plant a container of paperwhites every two to three weeks to keep my home filled with their sweet scent all winter long.

Only patient gardeners force hyacinth bulbs to bloom inside. It can take three months for them to bloom, not because it takes them that long to grow but because they need a lengthy chilling period in a dark spot with temperatures from 35 to 45° F. before growth begins.

Hyacinths can be planted in potting mix, on pebbles like paperwhites, or set in forcing vases. I planted a few in potting mix and started a few more in forcing vases.

To plant them in potting mix, choose a pot with drainage holes and put a few inches of moist potting mix in the bottom. Position the bulbs on the soil.

Cover them with more potting mix so that bulbs are covered with an inch of soil, and water them thoroughly. Move pots to a dark spot cold, but above freezing, for ten to twelve weeks. An unheated basement or crawl space are options or put them in the refrigerator. But you will have to make a choice between beautiful, fragrant blooms in a few months and keeping your apples cold because apples produce ethylene – a gas that destroys bulbs’ flowers – so they cannot be in the refrigerator together.

Keep the soil slightly moist while they are chilling and move bulbs into a bright, but cool spot when the cold treatment is complete.

There is nothing easier than forcing hyacinths bulbs in forcing vases. These can be purchased at craft stores, florist shops and local garden centers. Here are the steps required:

  1. Fill vase with water to within a fraction of an inch of the base of the bulb.
  2. Put bulb in vase.

I said it was easy, right? Move the bulb – vase and all – for cold treatment as above, adding water as necessary to keep it just below the bulb. When the shoot is about two inches tall, move forcing vase into a cool spot with low light. Gradually introduce it to brighter light over the next three or four days.

These hyacinths, both those planted in potting mix and those set in forcing vases, should bloom toward the end of March.

I may not have accomplished the rest of fall clean-up in the garden on Sunday, but getting these bulbs started will ensure there are blooms inside this winter. Garden with me!

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